By National Catholic Register
Rosaries and broken crucifixes strewn across the floor, upturned
furniture and littered belongings greeted us as we entered the former
rectory in Karemlash, an Iraqi Christian town liberated from the Islamic
State (ISIS) last October.
The two-story house, only completed in 2012, had all the hallmarks of
a place possessed, as though a demon had been unleashed to run right
The sight was emblematic of the whole town.
Karemlash was once home to up to 10,000 mostly Chaldean Catholic
inhabitants, but ISIS invaded and began to plunder it in August 2014, as
part of its offensive that year.
The town was part of a daylong visit by a group, including this correspondent, March 18 to liberated areas.
Our first stop was Karemlash’s ancient St. George’s Cemetery, dating
back to the sixth century. ISIS had desecrated it, leaving gaping holes
where graves had been, broken tombstones, and a coffin sitting on the
grass in the open air. One corpse, a Chaldean Church official told us,
had even been exhumed and then beheaded.
The adjoining St. George’s Monastery was also ransacked, but
relatively well-treated, although nothing but rubble was left of Dair
Banat Maryam, a 13th-century convent connected to the monastery, which
had once survived the Mongol invasion.
Karemlash itself was deserted, except for a few Christian militia
guarding the town’s entry point and one or two locals returning to pick
up whatever remains of their belongings.
The town’s now quiet and somewhat peaceful atmosphere was
occasionally broken by the sound of military jets in the distance and
the sporadic light thud of artillery, as the battle to liberate Mosul,
just nine miles away, entered its final stages.
Everywhere, there was destruction and desecration. House after house
was blackened by fire, if not altogether destroyed, and the owners’
possessions looted. Some properties, being filled with booby traps, had
been flattened by the Iraqi army, making parts of the town resemble the
aftermath of an earthquake.
All that remained of the family home of our guide, Chaldean Father
Thabet Yousif, was wreckage and a conspicuous mortar lying among the
bricks. Used as an ISIS base to launch attacks on nearby Peshmerga,
Kurdish military forces, it had been bombed by the Iraqi air force.
Father Yousif also showed us the home he had been born in, now with its
front door removed and its contents probably looted. It pleased him to
be able to ring the bells of one of the town’s eight churches.
All of the churches showed similar signs of anti-Christian
destruction. ISIS forces appeared to have tried their best to burn down
the town’s St. Addai Church, but failed. They had defaced the cross at
the altar — one of many to be vandalized in the town — and fired shots
at it, leaving bullet holes in the marble. A statue of Our Lady had been
The church contains the tomb of Father Ragheed Ganni,
a much-loved priest known to many in Rome from his time as a seminarian
there. Born in Karemlash, Father Ganni was martyred in Mosul on Trinity
Sunday in 2007. His tombstone had been vandalized, but his resting
place was untouched.
More severe was the damage to the 19th-century St. Mary the Virgin
Church in the town, where fire had gutted the nave, leaving charred
remains and blackened walls. A curtain in front of the sanctuary, once
decorated with a cross, had been slashed.
“Everywhere, the cross is defaced, scratched out, shot at,” observed
Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org. “We know who’s behind
this. It’s demonic — let’s call it what it is. It's Satanic … Satan has a
hatred of the cross, and he has a hatred of the followers of the
In many of the houses, ISIS militants had used sophisticated
equipment to dig tunnels to help escape death or capture, and
commandeered the town’s St. Barbara Monastery, rebuilt in 1798, as their
base in Karemlash.
The town suffered almost no atrocities because most people fled when
ISIS invaded. But one person who didn’t escape right away was Ghazala, a
doughty 83-year-old woman from Karemlash whom we met in Erbil. She had
slept through the ISIS invasion and was too ill to leave, forcing her
and another elderly woman to stay in the occupied town for 10 days.
She recounted how she resisted their attempts to force her to convert
to Islam, telling the ISIS fighters her age and saying: “You want to
make me a Muslim now? You can make me into a whore, bury me here, shoot
me — I’ll never convert to Islam,” she said. “Would you want your mother
to be forced to convert to Christianity?” she then riposted, to which
one militant replied, “No.”
Asked why she thought they did not kill her for not converting,
Ghazala replied: “I wasn’t afraid of them; I was never afraid of them.
They had weapons, guns, everything, but I wasn’t afraid — because God is
The empty town, however, gave ISIS fighters the chance to wreak chaos
and destruction on Karemlash, the extent of which even shocked local
Muslims, according to Father Yousif. “It made some of them want to
become Christian,” he told us, “but they can’t because they don’t have
Graffiti was splayed across the town with messages, including, “The
Cross will be broken,” “ISIS will remain,” “ISIS will take Rome,” and,
on a wall in St. Addai Church: “Jesus was a Servant of God, not the Son
But driving through the empty streets, it was possible to imagine how
idyllic it must have once been. Beautiful ancient churches and
monasteries, large open streets, attractive gated properties, and
schools, shops and services — it appeared to have once had everything,
including famous vineyards.
It will therefore be a considerable challenge to bring it back to its
former glory, not least because many of the Christian families who used
to live there have fled Iraq, probably never to return. It will also
always have the scars of the ISIS occupation.
The Difficulty of Returning
Countless other towns share the same fate, including neighboring
Qaraqosh, once the largest Christian town in Iraq. We hastily drove
through the now-lawless place, governed by competing Christian militias
and other groups, and witnessed the same extensive damage there. As in
Karemlash, most houses had also been burned in an attempt by ISIS to
deter its Christians from returning.
The prospect of liberation had given many Christian families hope,
but the extent of the damage has led them to lose it. Sister Ban Saaed
of the once Mosul-based Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena,
told the Register in Erbil that families were already drifting away from
“Parents are waiting for children to finish school, and then they
plan to go to Jordan or Lebanon,” she said. “They have been thinking of
leaving for good because of the damage they’ve seen to their houses and
villages.” Christians, she said, “would love to stay, but they’re fed up
with the uncertainty and not knowing what to do.” Primarily, they feel
their children deserve a better future, she said.
The sisters, who run a school and clinic in Erbil, also reported
frustration with the security services as well as the U.S. and coalition
forces who have a large base nearby. “The houses are burned, but what
are the allied troops doing?” asked Sister Nazek Khalid Matty. “They
desire to leave the country stronger, but since September and the
liberation, nothing has happened. They’re not involved in helping the
country to be secure.”
Christians in this part of Iraq are “really suffering on a daily
basis, and there’s also huge mental suffering,” said John Neill of the
Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil. “It’s genocide — 100%,” he said, pointing
to the trauma he had witnessed of those “fleeing their homes, leaving
everything behind, then ISIS desecrating them, burning them, and the
uncertainty of the future.”
Need for Security
A constant refrain from everyone we met was the need for security,
which continues to be lacking and, in turn, prevents reconstruction, job
creation and services. “We feel alone; no one to protect us, our
people. How can we go back to that situation? It’s stupidity,” said
Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Nicodemus Sharaf, the last bishop to leave
Mosul in 2014. “I told my people: If you don’t see me there, I won’t
accept anyone going back.”
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil pointed out that
the government has been focused on fighting ISIS in Mosul, causing a
delay in bringing about security and reconstruction and, with it,
disappointment among those wishing to return to a normal life. He also
recognized that the rule of law must return to these areas, which are
now weakened by sectarian rivalries between various Christian and
non-Christian militias — groups he believes will not help in building a
country “that respects a law for all.”
“Here, we need the support of the international community to remind
Iraqi politicians of the importance of really building a state on law
that respects everyone and protects the lives of every citizen,” he told
the Register, adding that, at the moment, the signs are not positive
that this can be achieved. Laws haven’t been respected since the Iraq
War of 2003, many Christians say.
Built into the poor security situation is the almost total breakdown
of trust between Christians and the government, as well as with their
Iraqi and Kurdish government forces largely deserted them when ISIS
invaded, despite outnumbering ISIS 200 to 1, and many of their fellow
Muslims stole their property and possessions.
“The situation is as you see,” said Metropolitan Nicodemus. “It’s so
bad, and we can’t accept or trust anyone around us.” He, too, is
therefore calling on the international community and the United Nations
to issue bone fide, written guarantees for a “safe zone” of Nineveh
Plain villages, as well as a change in the system (though not
necessarily the leadership) of government in Baghdad.
Aid for the Refugees
The predicament for the refugees is that now that the liberation is
almost complete, the West largely sees the emergency situation facing
Christians in the Nineveh Plain as over. But, more than ever, they say
they need aid to pay rents in their temporary housing in Erbil, as well
as medicines and other provisions (the Chaldean Church’s St. Joseph
Clinic for refugees in Erbil, for example, will soon run out of funds).
So far, it has been the Churches, rather than government or the U.N.,
that have provided almost all of the funding for the Christian refugees.
“At the moment, they’re living through the good works and charity of
so many wonderful people in America and all over the world,” said Father
Kiely. “But very few have jobs, and in order to have a vibrant future,
they must have jobs; otherwise, they’ll leave.”
Everyone we spoke to saw the West — in particular the U.S. and its
allies involved in the 2003 Iraq War — as responsible for the plight of
the country’s Christians and marked that as the time when respect for
the law began to collapse. They also all have high hopes for President
Donald Trump, who they see as a strong leader with clear sympathies and
whom they believe will help them.
“Personally speaking, I’m really encouraged to see someone is at
least thinking about the Christians,” said Archbishop Warda, adding that
he was pleased Trump is “attracting attention” for them. He would like
to see the U.S. president taking a lead in building security, but
through working with all parties in the region and not unilaterally.
Yohanna Towaya, a former farmer from Qaraqosh now living as a refugee
in Erbil, said that before Trump was elected, all the Christians and
Yazidis were praying for him to win.
“We have confidence in Trump,” he said, adding that Christians “hope
he’ll be savior of these minorities by making these strong decisions.”
The view of Obama, on the other hand, was “terrible,” according to
Neill, who said they were “more than disappointed” in him because “he
In addition to hope from the U.S., those aware in Iraq of Hungary’s
lead in helping persecuted Christians are also delighted by the
Hungarian government’s decision to dedicate a ministry to help them. “I
take great pride in this country,” said Metropolitan Nicodemus. “I hope
and pray America will do the same because, for the first time, I feel
like a respected Christian.”
The Christian leaders and lay faithful of Iraq also have no illusions
about Islam. They consider ISIS to be the real Islam, and Archbishop
Warda said that to rid the religion of violent extremism “is the
homework of the Muslims, with the help of Christians.”
“We don’t have to say: ‘We were victims, and we have had enough.’ No,
we have to say: ‘We were victims, but we have to continue to dialogue
with them,’” he said.
Catholics in the West, meanwhile, have plenty to do to help,
according to Father Kiely, and he believes the hierarchy in particular
needs to be “much more supportive.” He observed that many Iraqi
Christians feel the West has abandoned them and “cannot comprehend” why
there’s not more active prayer for their plight, such as weekly
rosaries for persecuted Christians.
Stressing that St. Paul talks about the Body of Christ, and that
“when one suffers, all suffer,” he reminded the faithful that the
Christians of Iraq and the Middle East “gave birth to the faith,” and
therefore all Catholics have a responsibility to protect it.“If we let that disappear,” Father Kiely said, “our judgment might be rather severe.”